Back on the Horse: Mary Gaitskill on The Mare

Gaitskill Side by Side

Mary Gaitskill’s short stories and novels are often dark and complex considerations of loneliness and relationships, such as Veronica, nominated for the National Book Award. Referred to as “the best practitioner of dark literary arts” by Elisabeth Donnelly in the LA Times, Gaitskill casts a spell on the reader, exposing what is raw and true.

The Mare is less interior than her previous novels, and therefore very different from her previous work. Written from multiple perspectives, Gaitskill tells the story of a Dominican girl, Velvet, a Fresh Air Fund kid who is introduced to horseback riding by her host family, Ginger and Paul. Silvia, Velvet’s mother, is another prominent character in the book. When Velvet’s outside of the confines of her Brooklyn life, she forms a deep attachment with a difficult horse, and in doing so, challenges herself.

Gaitskill herself was a Fresh Air Fund host, and in order to research this book, she spent three years learning how to ride horses. I recently chatted with her on a beautiful fall day while sitting outside of a restaurant near her apartment in Williamsburg.

The Barnes & Noble Review: The Mare feels like a big departure from your other books. There’s darkness, but there’s also a lot of hope, and I’m wondering if the writing process was different for this particular novel than your previous books.

Mary Gaitskill: It was. It’s stylistically different as well, I’m sure you noticed…It’s more direct, both in the way the sentences are structured and then the emotional expression. In a way, it’s not as much of a departure as it seems because it’s really a more direct expression of a particular type of emotional way of being in the world. And it’s different in that many of the characters are from a different socioeconomic place, but in some ways they struggle with the same things as my previous characters have. How much you can trust people, how much you value love, what is love, what does love come with? Is it love that’s being cruel, or is it the attachment of things to it? I mean, people in my stories aren’t asking themselves these questions directly, and neither are the people in The Mare, but I think that’s part of it for all of them.

BNR:  Ginger feels judged by the other women in her town, but in many ways she’s kind of her own worst critic. And I kept thinking of performance while reading The Mare, because Velvet performs her role as a tough city kid who manages to get a scarred and scared horse to like her, and her mother plays the fearful, ignorant mother who takes out her anger on her oldest child. Ginger plays the artist trying to repair by helping out another person and even resorts to community theatre. Did you think a lot about the roles we play in our lives and authenticity while writing this book?

MG:  Actually, I don’t think Velvet’s mother is playing a role. You’re probably thinking about the section in which she thinks “Why are people acting the way they are?” It’s like they’re playing parts like the kids in her school. And I think Ginger also is very aware of that, the role of a mother, what is a mother supposed to do? How am I supposed to act?

But I don’t think Silvia is doing that. I think she kind of has to do what she does, and there’s no acting involved whatever. But I can see why you asked the question . . . I would say Silvia’s not like this because she’s not really a product of American culture, but American culture now has become unbelievably self-conscious and unbearable almost. It’s like everybody, even small children.

I remember feeling that way when I was a kid too, sometimes. Having watched television, I would kind of play the role or picture myself on a television show or something like that. That’s maybe always been true of a certain type of kid, even before television maybe, but I think it’s been amplified to an insane level.

I saw when I was coming back on the train today a mother filming on her phone her small child looking out the window and watching the water, and the child of course is very aware of it. When looking out the window and watching the water becomes a drama, then literally everything is a drama. And people are watching, and there’s no room for just being there doing something without thinking about what you look like. I set it in a time somewhat before phones and people filming everything was so prominent, but it was starting to happen even then. I think the story starts in 2006 and ends in 2009 or ’10 maybe, I’m not sure.

But yes, I think that that’s become a huge issue in the last I would say twenty years. I remember hearing people talking about it a lot. Though actually people were doing that even before – I think in the ‘80s maybe is when I remember people first talking about authenticity like a little too much . . . Maybe it’s now an assumption that it’s not there. I don’t know. I had a friend who commented to me that he thinks everyone is acting as if they don’t know it. I think she thinks she’s not doing it, but everyone else is, and they don’t know it. And I’ve thought about that. What does that mean? Is that true? Because there is a sense in which we have – like I go in to teach a class, I may be somewhat different than I would be talking to you, although it’s related because it’s public. I’m very different with my roommate or my lover or my cats. But I don’t know if that means you’re acting really, if you’re being truthful. I think of acting as something you do almost by definition on purpose.I think people in like Velvet’s socioeconomic group are very aware they’ve been cast in a certain role by how they’re talked about, like terms like “at risk” or “making a difference” or hearing those women at the bus stop talk about Latino and black people, like we have to show them another way. That’s really aggressively being cast in a role by people who do not know you.

And as much as you might hate and resist that role, it affects you, especially if you’re a kid. And I’m not speaking as if I know about Latino people having this experience, but there’s other ways to have it. You know, if you’re one person or a minority in a large group and that large group is saying you’re this way and saying you’re this way over and over again, you’re going to become aware that’s your role. Some people are strong enough to resist it completely, but other people survive it by acting the role. They’re like “Oh, okay, that’s what I am. And fuck you if you don’t like it.”

And again, white people can do that too. It’s not a phenomenon about any particular one group, but it’s just what people will do if they’re cast in a role. But then somebody like Velvet, you question it. Why? Where did this come from? Who invented this?

And somebody like Ginger will also be aware of motherhood. As a woman, she feels very strongly. And again, you’re right, she’s her own worst critic. The other people may not even judge her that much, but she thinks they are because she’s had it impressed upon her at various times in her life that this is what women are supposed to do.

BNR: Did you do a lot of research for the novel? I’m wondering if you interviewed Fresh Air Fund kids and hosts and if you already knew a lot about horses before you started writing.

MG:  Most of the research I did was about horses. I didn’t know anything about them.

BNR:  Did that involve going and riding horses?

MG: Yeah. I learned how to ride at 56.

BNR: That’s wonderful.

MG: It was terrifying.

BNR: Did you like it?

MG:  I seemed to. I didn’t at first. At first I hated it because I was scared. I was a Fresh Air Fund person. Me and my husband did that starting in 2002 and it was quite the experience . . . .It was a really involved relationship. They were really, really great. They were so wonderful, these kids. I don’t know how much it helped them, but it certainly helped me to be involved with them. It made my life better.

So that’s how I knew that experience. And horses were . . . I was so dumb at first. I actually thought I could learn what I needed to know. And the girl, by the way, did really like to ride. That’s where I got the idea. She didn’t do what Velvet does because she didn’t come up that much. I mean, Velvet comes up every month and does it a lot. She would not be able to ride at the end as well as she did if she did not do that. The girl didn’t have the opportunity for that. She wouldn’t have done it anyway. That wasn’t her nature.

But I actually thought that I could go to the stable with my notebook and ask “Have you ever had a connection with a horse? What did it feel like?” I realized quickly that I was not going to get what I needed by that. So I thought well, I’ll just take maybe ten lessons but again realized that really wasn’t adequate, especially for me. It’s hard to learn anything new when you’re older, and that really takes a lot. So I spent three years. [Horses are] quite sensitive, and they react to you. If they know you’re nervous, it makes them uncomfortable. There’s a “lesson horse” that can be used with nervous people, but I was really nervous, and some of the horses I was on were lesson horses, but they were at barns that didn’t necessarily get a lot of business so they weren’t the type of lesson horse that every day they had five people come in and ride them one after the other. They were horses that were ridden maybe a couple times per week by different people, and I was probably one of the least experienced people. And also frequently, although not always, children are – even if they’re really new, they’re less nervous because they’re kids and they aren’t imagining they could fall off and have every bone in their body broken and be in the hospital forever.

So it was awkward because the horses would just look at me and be like “Oh no, not her again.” And I knew they were feeling that way. And I remember I would be tacking them up, and they would do a perfectly normal horse thing like toss their head or stamp their feet and I would flinch because it looked like aggression to me. I would flinch, and then they would be like what’s wrong? And it would be this horrible feedback loop.

And at one point, oddly enough, I was more comfortable – I wanted to ride bareback for a minute because I saw this young girl riding a horse bareback, and she was trotting, and I thought “Oh, I’d like to try that,” just because I thought my character would want to do that. So I said “Can I try that?” And I’d really not done posting before. I think I’d experimented a little with posting, but it was really early. So the instructor was like “Are you sure?” And I was like “Yeah, I just want to get a feel for it.”

And it was in the winter, and it was such an experiment when I got on because paradoxically, although I was afraid of them, the more connected I felt, the more relaxed I felt. And so when I got on the horse without the saddle, and the warmth was so striking because it was cold, I was like “Oh my God, this feels so good.” And so I was much more relaxed. I just felt literally more connected with the animal because I was calmer, so the horse was calmer, and the lesson went much better.

And the next time – we didn’t trot; we just walked. I was just practicing steering and basic things. So the next time we did it again. And I said “I think I want to try posting.” She said “Are you sure?” And I was like “Yeah.” And the first time I did it, it worked. I could do it.

So the second time I was a little overconfident. And something happened also to startle the horse. It’s one of these horses that’s normally bulletproof, nothing disturbs it, and I don’t remember what it was. I think maybe it was hunting season and somebody fired a gun close by. I think what happened too is I squeezed it inadvertently and he thought I was telling him to trot so he did and I first fell off. And it really scared me. I was lucky because I didn’t break anything, but I bizarrely cut my chin on a rock on the ground.

Because I tried to do what’s called a quick dismount. I tried to get off when I could feel I was falling. That’s how I fell on my front instead of my back. It was very jarring. I didn’t break anything, but I pulled a muscle, and I was really shaken up. I’m ashamed to say that I did not get back on the horse.

BNR: You didn’t after that?

MG: The trainer was like “Get back on.” I was like,“No, no, no, no.” So I didn’t, and I went back to another barn I was working at and decided I’m not going to do this. I’m going to break my stupid ass if I keep trying to do this. So instead I just groomed them and cleaned their stalls, and I did that for months.

I realized, gradually, that I was no longer nervous around these horses because I knew them. And I realized not only were they not nervous around me, they actually kind of liked me because I was very gentle with them. And I had learned how they liked to be touched; I learned how they liked to be groomed; I knew when they liked being scratched in a certain place; and I did a really good job cleaning their stalls, and they knew that. And I suddenly realized I want to ride them. I want to ride one. So I went back, and because I was more calm, things went much better. I still wasn’t a very good rider. I never became really good or skilled, but I did basically learn how. And I actually could learn at that point because I wasn’t so frightened at everything that I would tense up at anything the horse did. And I also became very attached – I would say I fell in love with a particular horse.

BNR: Is it like the horse in the book at all?

MG:  No, he was a very mild horse, very gentle. Although he did shove me with his head a few times and almost knocked me down, but not out of meanness. I don’t know about the head thing. I think because I was talking on the wrong side, and he was trying to say “Hey, over there.” But I didn’t know that, and it scared me. And as I put in the book, it was a mistake. The place that I was going to — you shouldn’t actually do this, but some people do it — with some of the larger horses, they didn’t walk them into the stall and turn them all the way around and take all the efforts that you’re supposed to do. They would just walk them up to the door and unclip them and kind of gesture them in. And that’s what this horse was used to, and I didn’t know that. So while I was leading, I was leading him in and he was just expecting to run right in. So even though I put my elbow in his side so he’d remember I was there, boom, he just ran right into me. Because my elbow was there, he basically flung me against the wall. I was like never again. I don’t know why, but this horse doesn’t like me and I won’t deal with him ever again. But another time I was in there and it was an emergency and his stall was really dirty, and he literally said “Please help me. It’s gross in here. Please help.” And so I did. I went in and helped him.

BNR:  Were you scared at that point, or no?

MG: I was. I actually said “No, I would like to, but you shoved me with your head. You knocked me against the wall. I’m not coming in there. I’m sorry. Somebody else will be here.” I swear he looked back at me and said “I’m not going to do that. I need help.” And so I put some hay in his feed dish so he would get out of the way. This is something you also shouldn’t do. It’s actually much safer to take the horse out of his stall, but because I’d had trouble with him while I was leading him I didn’t want to do that. Instead I blocked the door with the wheelbarrow and went in. But as soon as I walked in, I knew it was fine. I just knew nothing was going to happen. He was actually very gentle. So, anyway, he was the horse I really fell in love with.

BNR: Velvet has a strong will, much like the horses she learns to ride, and you write: “The horses have what the people here have. They get beat down and locked up but still, when they run, nobody can stop them.” When writing about someone trying to rise above the world they were born into, it’s easy to tread into sentimental or kind of saccharine territory, and I wonder how you managed to avoid that while writing this book.

MG: I don’t know if I did — to me, even if something is romantic or very emotional, it isn’t sentimental if there’s some reality to it.

I think people are more frightened of sentiment than they have to be. Writers. They think any strong emotion is sentimentality, and that’s really bad. I think a lot of writing, or a lot of young writers especially, hold themselves back unnecessarily because they’re so upset about the idea that they might be sentimental or so concerned about being criticized that way or even being that way that they just shy away from any strong expression or emotion. And you can be really emotional, too emotional almost, and not be sentimental if it’s genuine.

BNR: The title of the book refers to the horse, but it also refers to the French word for mother (mère), and at one point Silvia even compares herself to a horse and says “I am blocked inside the hardness and nothingness and I can’t get out. Like the horse Velvet talks about the one who kicks the walls. Striking the hard thing, trying to break it. No one sees. No one hears.” Do you see a lot of similarities between the two?

MG:  Not really, but I don’t know if there can be a similarity between a person and an animal really but there is something beautiful trapped in Silvia. And she knows it. Just the ability to be yourself, even, because she has to work so hard, and each one is constantly pushing against survival, the need for survival. There are so many things you need to do that you can’t come out. Like I think at one point she says “I work so much I can’t think.” I can’t remember exactly. But that’s true, if you’re constantly having to do things just to live, you’re not able to think as well as you can or relax and feel things. So in that sense, she is confined.

Did you ever see the movie National Velvet?

BNR:  No, I haven’t.

MG:  I was frankly inspired to write this by seeing a little film clip of it — I hadn’t yet seen the movie at that point. Liz Taylor, 15 years old, riding across a Technicolor meadow. And I learned it is about a young farm girl who’s pretty naturally poor, but pretty naturally talented. She wants this horse. Her family can’t afford it. But it’s such a fucked up horse that nobody else wants it, so she gets to take care of it. And she winds up, through various circumstances, entering the National. It’s called National Velvet because she enters this big national race. But nobody knows it’s a girl. She’s replacing a jockey because he can’t ride for some reason.

So she rides her horse and wins, and then when they find out it’s her, she’s disqualified. She’s a 14-year-old girl. So it doesn’t change her life, and her mother actually says “Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to win anything. You’re going to go on and have kids and women are great.” And that’s the end.

So in an odd way I wanted to do something similar here. I intentioned originally for her to win big, and I realized because of the way these contests are structured it would be impossible. She’d have to enter repeatedly. She can’t do that. She would be up against girls who had such an advantage over her in terms of their horses being trained, being bred, being just the best possible quality horse in existence, and also they’ve been riding since they were seven years old and they can do it every day if they want to. So she couldn’t possibly consistently win against girls like that. So I mean for her to triumph and it’s meaningful, but is it going to change her life in a material way? Probably not.